Skinning the Buffalo


SYNOPSIS:  About a day of slaughter and community.  Or is it the other way around?  About funeral requirements and etiquette.  How do traditions develop?  A few thoughts.    This blog is long as there is nothing quite like this.

Todays post is not for the fainthearted as I will not spare you the details.  It may be easier for you to read it than it was for me to experience, but I can’t imagine that it is easy either way.  And if you don’t like blood, skip this one.  I put off writing this blog as much as I could and am still fighting back tears writing, just as I was at the funeral ceremony.  But as a few days have passed, I have come to grips with this tradition more and more, even though not fully.  It is one of the middle entries of my Toraja time even though it was actually happening on my first day here.  I needed some distance. 


It may be cheap to live in Tana Toraja, but many people cannot afford death. 

As seriously as the social hierarchy is taken around here, it is not possible, to do a “Las Vegas” funeral, so to speak, and to skip the expensive parts.  If you want to be accepted in this community, you have to live up to your responsibility toward the dead.  For starters, everyone is responsible for their parents.  In case of siblings or cousins without children, you will be called to duty there as well. 

What drives the funeral ceremony are a few deeply-held animist beliefs in the Torajan community:  first, a person who dies in our conventional Western sense is not really dead until a funeral ceremony (or ceremony for short) has been held.  At the bare minimum one animal (a pig for the dirt poor and up from there) has to be slaughtered to accompany the dead into the afterlife.  Death in the Torajan understanding occurs at the moment that the chosen animal dies.  The more animals and grave goods you can send off with the deceased, the better their lives will be “over there”.

Torajans keep their “dead” in the coffin at their home or at a temporary structure near the home until the ceremony can be held.  They don’t consider that person dead yet.  The term they use is “sick”, perhaps better described as “in limbo”.   The deceased is treated like a living being despite his or her obvious limits.  They are greeted in the morning, have food brought to the coffin and are talked to. When you leave the room with the coffin you say goodbye and you may tell the person what you are up to and when you will be back. 

After death in the physical sense occurs, the person is washed, dressed and injected with formaldehyde and other chemicals that prevent rotting and smell.  The person is put into a wooden coffin and can be viewed by the family members if they wish.

To bring this point home, Yussuf took me to his house, where his father’s coffin is sitting in a designated room waiting for his ceremony.  Yussuf, the youngest and poorest of five siblings, is the holdup for the ceremony.  Each child has to bring a buffalo to be slaughtered.  An acceptable animal costs around $2000.  Time is money.  If you buy a young animal, for no less than $900 and feed it well for a year, it should about be ready.  However, Yussuf bought a car on credit a few years before his father’s death and does not have the money for the buffalo.  His siblings have set him an ultimatum:  January of 2017.  If worse comes to worst, he has to take out more credit to buy the buffalo.  No buffalo, no ceremony, no death.  Aside from that, at least a dozen pigs (also a few hundred dollars each) have to be slaughtered.  Yussuf bought baby pigs and is currently feeding them up to size.

But that is just the beginning. 

Funerals can last for days.  The bare bone facts (to stay in the theme) for the one I attended — which would be classified as an upper middle-class funeral — were these:  over a two-day period, 470 pigs were slaughtered and ten buffalos.  More than 1000 guests were in attendance for each of the two days, the “slaughter days”; possibly even 2500 total.  That many guests had to be fed.  To shelter them, 48 temporary bamboo structures had to be erected and decorated.  Clothes had to be tailored for women serving the guests.  A group of boys and girls were outfitted with traditional clothes and beads to greet the guests.  It was a big tourist draw.  Most likely 20+ tourists attended.

Picture the cost of all of this, starting with the temporary structures.  Those take 2-3 months to be build and a crew which needs food and shelter for that time period.  Wherever you look, there are more hidden costs.

We arrived around 11 AM on day one.  The festivities were in full swing.  Truckloads of people arrived in dark and fine clothes.  For each truck you could count on a screaming pig being carried in by young men; the small ones by two, the big ones by four.    The pigs started to pile up in the shady zones of the open plaza, the central focus of the event in front of the home in which, upstairs, two coffins were held. 

A mother of ten children had died a year earlier, but one of her sons had preceded her by yet another year.  He could not be buried until his mother was dead.  Another deeply-held belief is this:  you cannot mix the burials of different generations.  One generation has to be gone before the next one can follow.  This son had a big funerary ceremony in Papua New Guinea where his family lived.  But his coffin had to be held until now, his mother’s ceremony.  Finally, he could be buried with her.  Of course, he had to be flown in from Papua New Guinea at who knows what expense.

For some reason I got assigned a spot in one of the two rice barns — a place of honor over the temporary bamboo structures and a place with a perfect view of the main events.  Perhaps, Yussuf had pulled the “American Professor” card?  I don’t know.

There was no end to the screaming of the pigs and the hissing of the blow torches.  At least ten areas in the grassy slope behind the temporary structures had been converted into slaughterhouses.  Pig after pig went down the hill. 

So many sentences in the German language and other languages that we use figuratively all of a sudden took on a new, grim meaning for me:

Er schreit wie am Spiess.

Das Fell wird gesengt.

Das Schwein wird abgestochen.

Er faehrt wie eine gesengte Sau.

I could not come up with as many in English.  Are there more?

To be scared shitless.

I spoke to a Swedish couple who said they have an expression too: 

To scream like a pig going to slaughter.

Multiply this by 470 and you get the picture.  But really, you get nothing without the sound…  Believe me, it was the screams that were unbearable!

The events of the day are ultimately quite simple and repetitive.  When new groups of people arrive, they has to pass a government post.  There, each pig designated for slaughter is registered and taxed.  After all, why would the government not profit from excessive traditions like this?

Then the representative of the group approaches one of the hosts.  The main hosts were the daughter and the son of the deceased mother on whose property the ceremony took place. The hosts assigned them a number for a temporary shelter and passed on their name and the number in the party to the head of ceremony, a kind of a DJ with a microphone.  He was the only voice loud enough to compete with the pigs. Everything around, talking, kids playing, axes chopping got jumbled up into a big background murmur.

Group after group was called and led procession-style to a more sturdy and fancy temporary structure, the reception hall, which had a group of beautifully dressed boys and girls who would take turns to line up for the new arrivals.  The group would sit for a while, socialize with some of the family members, deliver their donations (cigarettes, sugar, nuts and money are typical) and after the appropriate amount of time would be led out back to their temporary structure again.  There, they were served coffee, tea and sweets and later loads of cooked pork and rice and they would sit and socialize further until they deemed that it was time to leave to make room for a new group of people.  But really, there was no shortage of space.  48 structures easily could hold between 10 and 20 people at a time, or 1000 for the day.

Let’s say that all I had that day was a cup of tea, two little sweets, and a handful of rice.  I could not stomach any more than that.

Ceremonies like this bring together family and people from far-flung areas.  I have to assume that this is one of the main reasons they are deemed so important and cannot be clipped or skipped:  how else do you bring people together on a regular basis?  How else do you keep the identity of a community alive that is as different and unique as this? 

But why is it set up to drain the individual so thoroughly?  Even for the rich, a funeral costs between $30,000 and $100,000 and the sky is the limit.  That is no joke.  Why is the wealth of a community siphoned off with each death?  Does that make any historical sense?  In ancient Peru, I know of a similar tradition.  Kings would be buried with practically all of the gold available at the time.  The next king had to start from scratch.  Is there any practical advantage to that?

Procession after procession passed by.  Pig after pig was slaughtered.  One pig became my special friend.  He had to be brought in by four strong men in a special crate; that’s how heavy he was.  He was worth $8000, I was told.  Somebody had made a huge donation.  As all of the other pigs were screaming even as they were lying in the sand and tied down by cords and bamboo sticks, this one only was tied to the post of the rice barn right below my feet with a little string on one of its legs.  It did not scream, it did not squiggle.  It dug itself a little bed around its head with its snout and quietly awaited its fate.  When its time came, it walked without a sound to the slaughter area.  It is too old to fight, I was told…  At that point, I almost lost it. 

But the ceremony was gearing up for the most important moment of the day.  The core of the family gathered and decided on the chosen pig and the special buffalo, the two animals whose death would signal the moment of the actual death of their mother.  Several men prepared a sturdy bamboo post on which the buffalo would be tied.  The pig was brought in and sheltered by palm leaves.  A young man with a traditional kris (dagger) and a man with a long knife to kill the pig, awaited the signal from the head of ceremonies.  And then it came. 

With one swift stroke to the throat of the buffalo, the young man proudly severed the main artery.  Was this his first?  When and how did he learn to do this?  Could anything have gone wrong?  These things went through my head.  But all went smoothly.  And once again it was a word that all of a sudden made sense to me:  Schlagader.  In German we use that word for the main artery.  It literally means the “hit-artery”…

The buffalo went down as if in slow motion, without a sound, stumbling a bit before falling to the ground.  A stream of thick blood kept coming and coming, slowly being absorbed by the sand.  Within minutes, the buffalo was surrounded by a swarm of busy men, each of whom seemed to know exactly what to do:  One for each leg, one for the head, one for the innards, one for the pile of undigested grass — an entire pushcart full.  They skinned and chopped and scraped and within 30 minutes or less had reduced the bull to piles of bones, meet, intestines, and various other unrecognizable parts.  And the horns, of course; they would become a prized trophy fastened to the front post of their traditional home.  A reminder of the day and a symbol of the spirit of their mother.

I had been scheduled to stay the night in the village and to return to the funeral on day two — the big day for the slaughter of buffalos.  Nine surviving kids, nine more buffalos needed to be slaughtered to fulfill the obligations of the ritual.  Most likely there were other festivities at night, like dancing perhaps, and more socializing.  But I was too exhausted after a night on the bus and all this blood and gore.  I could definitely not picture myself watching the killing of nine more buffalos. One was plenty.   And so I requested to go home.  An event like this needs digesting. 

I was afraid of nightmares.  But instead I fell into a deep dreamless sleep.

Just as well.